Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm. Winston Churchill
In my December 5, 2020 post, I took a look at strategies and perspectives that are key to achieving victory in the war against our old enemy, impostor syndrome. Today, I have the syndrome’s frequent partner in crime, fear of failure, in the cross-hairs.
FIRST, A STORY
Twenty-four years ago, I took our two little kids to the beach for a weekend at a quaint B & B in a cove in Northern California. My timing could have been a whole lot better. Unfortunately, I had a challenging securities trial coming up four weeks later, and I was just plain scared. I still had fun at the beach; my kids were as sweet and hilarious at ages 8 and 5 as they are now. But, the cerebral gremlin in charge of fear of failure jeered repeatedly, “Stout, you’re an impostor. You will fail and the client will fire you.”
A month later, shaking in my wing-tips, I went to trial, my client’s defenses proved to be even flimsier than I had feared, and…nothing bad happened. The inhouse lawyer authorized a reasonable settlement, and I was on a plane home, breathing sighs of relief while fighting off feelings of regret that I had let my needless fear of failure invade my time with my kids.
First, a reality check. Despite what “Thought Leaders” boldly claim in TED Talks, I have trouble believing that anyone “welcomes” failure. The trick is not to be terrified of or paralyzed by it. A quick (aren’t they all?) Google search will turn up lots of tips on how to beat the fear of failure. Here are mine. Some may sound like cliches. That’s good, because cliches are usually true.
— Never forget that we are all in the same boat; almost everyone fears failure. A celebrated executive coach once told me that his clients share several mindsets: They are terrified of failing, they worry that the corporate ship will run into a figurative iceberg if they turn the helm over to a lieutenant, and they want to get to know their kids better.
— Let’s revisit a thought experiment. You will need plenty of paper. (My legions of dedicated followers may recognize it from a prior post.) Write a list of all the things that freaked you out around 4 am over the last twelve months. Then put a check mark next to the things that actually happened. QED.
— We also need to turn down the volume on the semantics of doom. It is hyperbole to label every mistake a failure. Even if a true failure happens, think of it instead as a final outcome resulting from a series of mistakes, usually over considerable time. Plus, the fact that you and I might have failed does not mean that we are failures: No failure is final. Plus, most of the time when your far-from-fearless blogger (me) has failed, a door has opened to me, revealing a fresh new venture.
— The cant advice, “Cam, your mistake isn’t the end of the world!” applies here. Pay mindful, and hopefully detached attention to what the actual consequences of a failure would be. Few of my many failures have been the end of the world. (Anyone notice the irony there?)
— When I screw up, I try (it ain’t easy) to lock my panicky ego in a soundproof padded cell, while I learn and build some resilience from my mistake.
— I don’t mean to be Pollyanna here; I usually break out in a cold sweat and have rubbery knees right after I fail. However, I am getting better at realizing that my feeling of fear (and once in awhile panic) won’t last very long. Something or someone comforting is bound to heave into view over the horizon.
— It is also helpful to understand that fear of failure is based in part on the false belief that we can work hard and be smart enough to prevent bad things from happening. As a wise friend of mine from New Jersey would say, Fuhgeddaboudit. I’m not saying we shouldn’t prepare thoroughly, but stuff is just going to happen. Our inability to control everything is not failure.
— Psychologists suggest that we replace negative avoidance goals with positive outcome goals. Instead of resolving not to lose your job, make it a goal to earn (with patience and reslilence) a promotion.
— Finally, failure is often in the eye of the accuser. I have sometimes been able to muster the courage and faith in myself (that is a thing) to understand that when people accuse me of failing they’re sometimes just plain wrong. Of course, when someone with authority wrongfully accuses you of making a mistake, some diplomacy if not outright pandering may be in order. The risk reward balance won’t be in your favor if you get defensive and argue the point. But at least you won’t feel like a failure.
As I said, I generally don’t believe pundits who proclaim that they welcome failure. However, I do agree that it can promote learning, and the growth of that very important virtue, resilience. So, once you get past feeling wretched about the mistake, put an entry in your journal of what you learned, and lay another small brick on your resilience foundation. Now, off you go.
Book: Endurance, by Alfred Lansing
(Classic, unrelated) movie: Back to the Future. (Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me you made a time machine…out of a DeLorean?)
Quote of the day: Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Samuel Beckett
Coming soon to a blog near you: Sharing Shames Stigma (What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, [and] more unashamed conversation. Glenn Close)
This talk on failure captures many ways to work past the feeling and not be swallowed up or paralyzed by it. Thanks!